5 burning Hot Stove questions ... with some answers

December 16th, 2023

It’s hard to believe we’re more than halfway through December given the number of big names still out there on the free-agent market, yet here we are.

Thanksgiving and Black Friday have come and gone, while the Winter Meetings passed by with only a few major signings (and one enormous trade). As we head into the home stretch of 2023, what can we expect to keep the Hot Stove burning?

The hot name right now is Japanese ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto. Who do you see as the favorite in the spirited bidding war that has broken out for him?

The consensus all winter has been that the Mets are the team to beat in this sweepstakes, a concept that was only strengthened when owner Steve Cohen and president of baseball operations David Stearns traveled to Japan to meet with Yamamoto prior to the Winter Meetings.

But Yamamoto has been meeting with a number of teams, all of whom hope to add the talented right-hander to their respective rotations. The Yankees, Dodgers, Giants, Phillies, Blue Jays and Red Sox have all met with Yamamoto, who must sign before his posting window expires on Jan. 4, and who could make his decision in the next few days.

Some have now characterized the Yankees as the favorites to sign Yamamoto, though the Mets and Dodgers figure to remain firmly in the hunt until a decision is made. The Dodgers’ impending trade for Tyler Glasnow didn’t take Los Angeles out of the Yamamoto sweepstakes – in fact, some believe Yamamoto is now their No. 1 priority.

It’s tough to count out the Mets in this race. If it comes down to money, Cohen has the ability to outbid anybody, so we could be headed for a New York showdown between the Yankees and Mets that will have the tabloids working overtime as they come up with back-page headlines.

The size of the Giants’ deal with Korean outfielder Jung Hoo Lee (six years, $113 million) surpassed many expectations. Who is another free agent you think could surprise people in terms of the contract he ultimately commands?

Scouts compare Lee to Masataka Yoshida of the Red Sox, who signed a five-year, $90 million deal with Boston last offseason. Yoshida was 29 years old when he signed, while Lee is only 25, so it’s not surprising that Lee landed an extra year at a slightly higher average annual value. Lee also has an opt-out clause that he can trigger after four years, allowing him to test free agency again at age 29 -- the same age Yoshida was when he signed with Boston.

Of the top free agents, the one with the best chance to land a total guarantee that could surprise people is Jordan Montgomery, who had a strong stretch run with the Rangers following his acquisition, then played a major role in Texas’ World Series title.

Yamamoto figures to command a deal worth between $250-300 million, while two-time Cy Young winner Blake Snell will be seeking a deal worth at least $200 million. Early winter estimates had Montgomery signing a five-year deal in the $125 million range, but given the price of pitching -- and the lack of top arms on the free-agent market -- Montgomery, who has averaged 175 innings with a 3.48 ERA for the Yankees, Cardinals and Rangers during the past three seasons – could wind up getting more than most have projected.

The other player to watch on this front is Jorge Soler, who might be the best pure power bat on the free-agent market. Soler -- who led the league with 48 homers in 2019 -- belted 36 home runs for the Marlins in 2023, posting an .853 OPS in 137 games. With Ohtani and Juan Soto no longer available, teams looking for power might view Soler at the best option, potentially boosting his value.

Among the serious Ohtani contenders who missed out, the Giants already have made one significant move by landing Lee. Who from that group do you think is likely to make the biggest splash as they pivot from Ohtani?

The Angels now have an Ohtani-sized hole to fill at designated hitter, so expect them to pursue a hitter (J.D. Martinez?) soon. The Giants, even after adding Lee, seem likely to pursue more talent this offseason as they look to get back to the top of the NL West. The Cubs also made a bid for Ohtani, and Chicago is expected to make some moves before all is said and done, possibly a reunion with Cody Bellinger.

That said, the Blue Jays would be the answer here. Toronto made a legitimate run at Ohtani, so expect the Jays to continue pursuing a big bat. Bellinger would make some sense for the Blue Jays (more on him in a minute), though Toronto also needs to address third base if they don’t re-sign Matt Chapman. The Blue Jays had a big bucket of money prepared to give Ohtani, so finding the payroll space to add another player or two (or three?) shouldn’t be a problem.

Cody Bellinger and Matt Chapman are two of the most high-profile free-agent position players still available. How have their markets been developing now that Ohtani is off the board?

The presumption has been that once Ohtani came off the board, the markets for both Bellinger and Chapman would begin to materialize rather quickly. Instead, Yamamoto’s situation has caused a further freeze. A number of teams are waiting to see where he lands, because that will impact the amount of money they have to spend.

Bellinger had one major potential suitor fall out of the picture last week when the Yankees acquired Juan Soto, Alex Verdugo and Trent Grisham, giving them no need to add another outfielder. That’s not to say the 2023 Comeback Player of the Year (and 2019 National League MVP) won’t have a number of teams after him. The Blue Jays, Cubs, Mariners, Angels and Giants have all been connected to him at some point this winter.

Chapman’s market is a bit murkier. The Blue Jays could certainly bring him back to Toronto, while the Cubs have a need after losing Jeimer Candelario via free agency. The Giants are also in need of third base help, and even after signing Lee, there’s plenty of room on the payroll to bring in Chapman if they want to. Other teams remain in the mix, as well, though Chapman might have to wait until Yamamoto and Bellinger sign before seeing his market begin to take shape.

Tyler Glasnow became the first of the pitching trade dominos to fall when the Rays dealt him and Manuel Margot to the Dodgers. What about the rest of that market?

No less than three big-name starters remain available on the trade market: former Cy Young winners Corbin Burnes and Shane Bieber, as well as Dylan Cease, who has two years of club control remaining as opposed to only one for Burnes and Bieber.

There have also been rumblings about Jesus Luzardo, Edward Cabrera and Bryce Miller being potential trade candidates, but those pitchers all have three or more years of control remaining, making it less likely they will be dealt unless their respective clubs receive big offers.

Smaller-market teams including the Orioles and Reds continue to search for rotation help, and while they might not be in the market for the big-money arms such as Yamamoto, Snell and Montgomery, they have plenty of prospect capital to deal for one of these more established arms.

And the teams that miss out on Yamamoto could turn to the trade market in an effort to acquire a frontline starter.

A number of free-agent starters are still available beyond the top three (Yamamoto, Snell, Montgomery) including Marcus Stroman, Lucas Giolito and Shota Imanaga, leaving a number of mid-rotation options for pitching-needy teams.